BEIRUT Syria's civil war has reached stalemate and international efforts to persuade President Bashar al-Assad to quit will fail, Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Saturday.
Mainly Sunni Muslim rebels seeking to overthrow Assad are fighting on the edge of the capital Damascus and expanding southwards from their northern strongholds in Aleppo and Idlib into the central province of Hama.
But Assad, from the Alawite minority linked to Shi'ite Islam, has responded with artillery, air strikes and - according to the NATO military alliance which is stationing anti-missile defences in neighbouring Turkey - with Scud-type missiles.
The Kremlin's Middle East envoy was quoted as saying earlier this month that the rebels could defeat Assad's forces and that Moscow was preparing a possible evacuation of Russians, the strongest signs yet that it is preparing for a post-Assad Syria.
That followed concerted calls from Western powers and some Arab countries for Assad to step down before Syria's 21-month-old conflict, which has killed more than 44,000 people according to activists, wreaks more destruction.
But Lavrov said the Syrian president was not about to bow to pressure from opponents or more sympathetic leaders in Moscow and Beijing.
"Listen, no one is going to win this war," he told reporters aboard a government plane en route to Moscow from the Russia-EU summit in Brussels. "Assad is not going anywhere, no matter what anyone says, be it China or Russia."
Lavrov said Russia had rejected requests from countries in the region to pressure Assad to go or offer him safe haven, and warned that his exit might lead to an upsurge in fighting.
He also said Syrian authorities were gathering the country's chemical weapons in one or two areas and that they were "under control" for the time being. "Currently the (Syrian) government is doing all it can to secure (chemical weapons), according to intelligence data we have and the West has," he said.
Western countries said three weeks ago that Assad's government might be preparing to use poison gas to counter rebels who are encamped around his capital and control rural Aleppo and Idlib in the north.
In central Hama province, where rebels say they have taken most of the rural territory west of Hama city, fighters threatened to storm two mainly Christian towns which they said Assad's forces were using as bases to attack them.
A video released by the rebels showed seven armed fighters of the Ansar Brigade demanding that residents of Mahrada and al-Suqeilabiya evict Assad's forces.
In Aleppo, rebel leader Colonel Abdel-Jabbar al-Oqaidi said his fighters considered the skies above Aleppo to be a no-fly zone and repeated a warning that they would attack planes using the city's airport.
Snipers fired at an airliner preparing to take off from Aleppo on Thursday, forcing it to abandon its departure.
"The airport was being used as a military airport to transport troops and (Iranian) Revolutionary Guards," Oqaidi told Reuters. "We forbid planes from flying in Syrian air space. We will set up a no-fly zone."
In Damascus, a car bomb killed five people and wounded dozens in the eastern district of Qaboun on Saturday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Video footage which activists said was filmed at the site of the explosion showed a white car in flames in the centre of a street filled with concrete rubble and furniture from at least one building which had collapsed.
The British-based Observatory, which monitors violence across Syria through a network of sources on the ground, also reported clashes between rebels and forces loyal to Assad on the southern edge of the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp, taken over by rebels this week.
Three people were killed by snipers and the army sent reinforcements to the perimeter of Yarmouk, which is described as a camp but in reality is a dense concentration of concrete buildings housing descendants of Palestinians who fled the 1948 fighting at the creation of the state of Israel.
The Observatory says 44,000 people have been killed in Syria since the uprising erupted against Assad in March last year.
International envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, who tried in vain to secure a four-day truce in November to mark the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Adha, will visit Syria in the next few days for talks with Assad, a source in the Cairo-based Arab League said.
The source said no date for such a visit had been announced but he expected it would be within a few days. "Lakhdar Brahimi's team does not want to announce the time of the visit too early, perhaps for logistical or security reasons," he said.
(Additional reporting by Yara Bayoumy in Aleppo, Alexei Anishchuk in Moscow, Ayman Samir in Cairo; Editing by Stephen Powell)